It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the North Koreans. Well…maybe it does. It’s really not that hard to understand why the North Koreans insist on testing nuclear weapons and launching rockets. In the parallel universe of Pyongyang, all that matters is power. Military and government power and the secession of the Kim regime. Anytime the North Koreans act out, it is to prop up the Pyongyang dictatorship that governs a starving country with a million man army. Pure and simple…that’s it and while Japan and South Korea scream that these missile tests and nuclear explosions make the peninsula less stable, the West wrings its hands collectively about how to engage Pyongyang.
What is clear is that the policy of containment and food aid restrictions don’t work. The North Koreans don’t care. North Korea, basically, has nothing to lose and quite a bit to gain by saber-rattling. “How much more isolated can you get?” asks James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The United Nations has sanctioned North Korea many times over for its provocative acts of the past, and the country’s largest economic and political benefactor China, is unlikely to support any additional penalties at the Security Council this time. “There may be some financial sanctions that the United Statesand its friends can unilaterally apply, but this is already by a long way the most isolated country on Earth,” Acton said. “The truth is that our ability to inflict significant costs on North Korea is not all that large.”
The timing of the launch was not coincidental, and that too played into the North Korean calculus. For years, North Korea has been planning to mark 2012 as a year in which it would show the world it has become a great and prosperous nation. In homage to the centenary of the country’s founder Kim ill Sung, his son and successor Kim Jong-Il had ordered the launchof the satellite around the birthday of Kim Il Sung on April 15. With a leadership succession to Kim Jong Un following the death of his father in December, many Korea watchers say the North could not back down from the launch because it would also serve to fracture the succession process, and expose faults and flaws in the system. “It’s become part of the national identity and nation building, it’s not simply a disguised ballistic missile test,” says Victor Cha, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and author of the book “The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future.”
For Cha, the launch is part of a national process of building a narrative and myth about the new young leader. For his grandfather Kim il Sung, the constructed narrative was that of a founding father of the ‘workers paradise,’ and for Kim Jong-il it was the development of a nuclear program to complement its ballistic missile technology as a means of protecting the nation from outside forces. “They need to build a new myth for him,” Cha says of Kim Jong Un. Part of that myth is “the notion of trying to reach new technological heights with indigenous technology, not relying on others. So space is the frontier they want to conquer.” There is likely a military component to the launch as well.
While the North portrays it as solely about putting a satellite in orbit to add an air of international legitimacy, the technology of launching satellites and ballistic missiles are similar, and the need to further test their military defense capabilities is needed to move forward. “This is about developing a long-range ballistic missile that is capable of hitting the United States,” said Acton with Carnegie. Before he left office, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates voiced concerns over the North’s military aims. “North Korea now constitutes a direct threat to the United States,” he said in an interview with Newsweek while voicing concern over possible future missile technology that would be more difficult to preemptively destroy. “They are developing a road-mobile ICBM [Intercontinental Ballistic missile]. I never would have dreamed they would go to a road-mobile before testing a static ICBM.” “North Korea needs these [static missile] tests to develop missile technology,” that could lead to advancement in mobile-delivery technology Acton said.
And the legacies of Iraq and Afghanistan may also be playing into the North’s thinking as well. “It’s not just politics, it’s the very life of the system and at the same time it sends a strong message to the world,” said Cha. As Director of Asian Affairs on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, Cha said his North Korea interlocutors told them their large military buildup was largely a product of seeing that Iraq and Afghanistan lacked nuclear weapons, and would never have been attacked had they possessed them. Continuing a campaign of military advancement is a small price to pay to avoid a future U.S. attack in the North’s mind Cha says. “For them, they lose a little bit of food [aid], but in the end, its a win win for them at least in their own way of thinking.” “It’s always at best educated guess-work with the North Koreans,” says Mike Chinoy, a senior fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, and author of the book “Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis.”
Chinoy, who traveled to North Korea many times as a CNN correspondent, says there is more than just birthday celebrations and national defense capabilities at work. The North’s mortal enemy and neighbor, South Korea, is a factor as well. “There is a little bit of North-South competition here,” he told CNN. For decades, South Korea has been trying to put a satellite in orbit without any success. “If the North could actually get whatever this thing is on top of their rocket into orbit, they can trumpet that as a triumph over the South.” Most analysts who follow North Korea see a familiar script being re-written with North Korean provocation being followed by global condemnation, and a period of further isolation from the international community. Satellite, ballistic missile test or both, the regime appears certain in its abilities to weather the storm once again.
Chinoy says the invitationto a large contingent of foreign media by North Korea to visit the launch site and report the launch from inside the country is a sign the new regime is very confident of its hold on power, and keep control of events. “I have been there enough to know that the slightest twinge of anxiety and the door just slams shut.” Chinoy raises a most valid point and I would add that the Pyongyang government is learning about effectively using the power of the world press corp. It was meant to be a show-stopping display of military might, a rocket poised to enter orbit to celebrate 100 years since the birth of the man who founded North Korea.
But while the rapid disintegration of Unha-3 may have drawn sighs of relief from countries along its planned trajectory, one analyst says in this case failure may be more dangerous than success. “Given the technology failure on such an important occasion on the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung, and given the failure of the symbolism of that, there’s perhaps a need to compensate in some way,” said Rory Medcalf, program director of international security at the Lowy Institute. That compensation could come in the form of short-range missile tests, Medcalf said. However, he added that “they’ve done it so many times before that it’s not all that impressive.” The alternative might be a nuclear test, Pyongyang’s third since 2006, and another way for new leader Kim Jong Un to convey his power to the North Korean people. “I wouldn’t exaggerate it, but the chance of a nuclear test this year is now higher than it was yesterday,” he said.
In the days before Friday’s launch, South Korean intelligence officers predicted that North Korea would use the international chorus of condemnation over the rocket launch as an excuse to test its nuclear technology. In a report obtained by CNN, they said recent satellite images showed the final stages of a tunnel being dug at Punggye-ri, the site of two previous tests in 2006 and 2009. “Their nuclear test in 2006 is believed to have been a fizzer, the one in 2009 was still very small by standards of nuclear weapons, so there’s an argument that their military would want to test again anyway,” Medcalf said. “Also their previous tests used a plutonium design, and they may want to prove a uranium bomb.”
A nuclear test would also fit North Korea’s pattern of serial provocations, analysts said. “Certainly in 2006, you see a launch, you see a condemnation and some Security Council sanctions,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “You see some very tough words form the North Koreans and then you see a North Korean nuclear test. So it wouldn’t surprise me to see that pattern play out again,” he said.
While the cycle of North Korean provocation and diplomacy might follow a predictable path, questions remain as to why the country pressed ahead with a rocket launch that, based on previous attempts, seemed destined to fail. Unlike previous launches, international media was invited to view launch preparations. They were given an unprecedented tour of the launch site and then front-row seats in a press center that showed blank screens as word spread outside the country that the launch had failed. Lewis said, by inviting journalists, Pyongyang may have been seeking to remove a layer of secrecy surrounding the event, thus reducing the likelihood of harsh international sanctions to a launch planned well before recent negotiations with the U.S. over the resumption of food aid. “I really think that fundamentally they wanted to go ahead with this launch and they were trying to remove some of the pressure that was on them, reduce the chance of sanctions,” he said. “Bringing in the reporters was all part of their efforts at trying to be transparent. In a way they were sort of deluding themselves.”
In late February, North Korea announced an agreement to freeze its nuclear and missile tests, along with uranium enrichment programs, and allow the return of U.N. nuclear inspectors. At the same time, the U.S said it would provide 240,000 metric tons of food aid to the impoverished country. The deal is now off after the launch which the White House says “threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments.” Lewis said he believes Friday’s rocket launch was the main motivation behind Pyongyang’s recent willingness to engage with U.S. negotiators. “People have tended to assume it must have been about the nutritional assistance. But I think it makes much more sense to imagine that they knew that they were going to do this rocket launch. And they knew that would trigger a round of sanctions and hostility so they may have been bargaining to try to have the rocket launch, without all the sanctions,” Lewis said.
Any North Korean strategy to avoid tough international sanctions seems to have backfired amid a storm of criticism ahead of a U.N. Security Council meeting on the launch on Friday. The regime’s attempts to broadcast a powerful image to its people also seemed to have crashed along with the rocket debris. Pyongyang’s unprecedented admission of the launch’s failure is a sign, analysts said, that the regime is aware that it’s getting harder to shield the truth from its people. “It is just getting a little bit incrementally harder each year in North Korea to completely deceive its population about what’s known in the outside world. And in this case, you had that extra pressure of expectation from the 100th birthday celebrations and the presence of the foreign media,” Medcalf said. “Perhaps North Korea’s leaders recognize better than we imagined how much information technology has changed the world,” Lewis added.
Several things are a bit more clear after the failed rocket launch. The North Koreans are not going away and have…at the very least…opened the doors to the international media if only for a short time which is something they have never done before. Pyongyang shows no intention of slowing down its nuclear ambitions or it’s rocket launches and the policy of containment and sanctions has never worked and it’s clearly not working now. Maybe…just perhaps…it’s time to sit down at a table and talk to the Pyongyang government without threats, without arguing and with a serious full-fledged attempt to work together to secure peace on the Korean peninsula. Military exercises and threats by both sides have done nothing for decades except insure more saber-rattling. North Korea has opened the door, albeit ever so slightly so perhaps its time to at least try to talk.